Police vehicle light
Credit: Alex Schmidt / Shutterstock

Connecticut police officers would be required to tell drivers why they were pulled over for a traffic stop under a bill debated Thursday during a public hearing of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee. 

The legislation, co-sponsored by Bridgeport Democrats Sen. Herron Gaston and Rep. Fred Gee, requires police to inform drivers what alleged violation motivated the traffic stop. The bill also calls for police de-escalation training and for additional data reporting under an existing law designed to prevent racial profiling.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

Throughout the hearing, several legislators and members of the public said they were surprised to learn that Connecticut law currently did not require police to notify drivers why they had pulled them over. 

“As a husband, a father, a son, a friend and Black man, I found this alarming,” Kirk Wesley of Bridgeport said, “especially because I thought the opposite was true. In the following week I asked a number of people if they were aware that, by law, the police do not have to tell you why they have stopped you and one by one each person gave me an incredulous reply when they learned that that was the actual law.”

Avon Police Chief Paul Melanson, who testified on behalf of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, told the committee that police officers are already trained to inform drivers of the reason for stops. The association also submitted written testimony stating no objections to a requirement for verbal notifications, though it had reservations about potential written notices.

However, throughout the day, the committee weighed exigent circumstances that might require police to withhold from a driver the reason for a traffic stop. Melanson described one such incident from his own career. 

“I was a detective and pulled over a suspect in a bank robbery,” Melanson said. “They had a gun and they robbed a bank. I was by myself. Did I tell them why I stopped them right away? No. I told them they had a tail light out, right? Until I could get some support there.” 

Sen. Herron Gaston, Rep. Greg Howard, and Rep. Pat Boyd at the Public Safety Committee hearing Credit: Christine Stuart photo

Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer and Republican from Stonington, worried that the requirement contemplated by the bill could put police in “no-win” situations. 

Gaston, the bill’s co-sponsor who also serves as one of the committee’s chairs, said proponents understood that such circumstances may require a different approach.

“If there is a bank robber that you get behind, then you may not want to say exactly why until you have backup,” Gaston said. “But I certainly do believe that before that encounter is over, that law enforcement official needs to let the motorists know why they are being pulled over.”

Gaston said members of his community wanted to see the law adopted in Connecticut. He pointed to statistics finding that Black and Latino men are disproportionately more likely to be stopped by police as well as the January death of Tyre Nichols, whose traffic stop and subsequent beating has resulted in criminal charges against five former Memphis police officers. 

“We know that there’s a lot of fear that comes along with when you see those red and blue lights,” Gaston said. “I’ve had my own personal encounter where I’ve been pulled over in the state of Connecticut and was treated very belligerently by a law enforcement official that got behind my vehicle and didn’t tell me why I was being pulled over. In that moment, I thought that I too could be a Tyre Nichols.” 

Gee, the bill’s other author, said lawmakers understood that police put their lives on the line and did not intend to make their job more dangerous.

“We are not trying to impede the progress of an investigation when it pertains to exigent circumstances,” Gee said. “But we are trying to eliminate motorists being dehumanized… on a traffic stop. I have personal experience with that kind of behavior from a police officer.”

Melanson, Avon’s police chief, encouraged any Connecticut drivers who experience hostile behavior during a traffic stop to report those interactions to the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

“The only way we repair our relationships with our community is accountability and we need to know when people are having negative interactions so that we can get down to the facts of things,” Melanson said.